This month on the Triskele Book Club, Catriona Troth interviews Al Brookes, author of The Gift of Looking Closely, winner of the Guardian Self-Published Book of the Month, July 2014.
It took me ten years to write The Gift of Looking Closely. I always expected to write novels, even as a child, so I turned out to be a very late starter. But the truth of the matter is that I couldn’t have written this book sooner – I didn’t really know what I wanted to say until later in my life.
So, yes, it really has been a long time in the making – most of my lifetime. I’m enormously satisfied that it’s out in the world at last!
Can you identify a first spark of inspiration? Did you start with the idea of assisted suicide or did that develop out of the story?
In 2003, I saw a programme on the television about a terminally ill man called Reg Crewe, who travelled to Switzerland to have an assisted suicide at Dignitas. His wife and daughter went with him, and I was deeply moved by their support for him and their courage.
That stayed with me. I began to think about different situations, alternative perspectives. I wondered what it might be like for a relative to support an assisted death when they didn’t really want to… and from there I moved to the concept I developed for the novel, which was that someone might actually be tricked into helping someone commit suicide. But it was that programme that got me thinking and provided me with the first spark of an idea for the novel.
That exhortation to the reader – ‘You be Claire, then, and I’ll watch.’ – is daring and unusual. Why choose to tell the story in this way?
Asking the reader to step into Claire’s shoes is my way of creating a more intense reading experience. It didn’t feel enough just to use the second person. I wanted to take it a step further; as if to say to people, I really really want you to feel this.
Once I chose to tell the story in that way, I found it really suited me; it felt like a really comfortable place to write from.
It is quite daring and unusual – but there are an awful lot of books in the world already. I figured that if I was going to write (yet another) one, I should at least aim for something original.
Claire’s ‘gift of looking closely’ reminds me of Mary Norton’s letter to a young fan, when she describes growing up as the short-sighted sister of a gaggle of long-sighted brothers – focusing on tiny things in the hedgerows because she could never see the distant, fleeting objects they tried to show her. Do you share that gift? What sorts of things cause you to look closely?
I love the idea of the young Mary Norton focusing on the tiny things because she was short sighted! I wasn’t short sighted as a child, I was just fascinated by close up-ness. I wanted to sink into the detail of things.
The sorts of things that cause me to look closely now are invariably things in the natural world – flowers and wet stones and bark and insects and leaves. And moss, especially.
I also like to look closely at emotions. How do I feel, what do other people feel, honestly and deeply? What makes us tick? I trained as a counsellor and even though I don’t practice any more, I still tend to be very aware of the emotional landscape at any time.
It’s not an easy decision to publish a first book yourself, and there are many reasons for doing so. Why did you make the choice? Are you glad you did?
In 2013, the first chapter of The Gift of Looking Closely won a competition run by a Brighton-based publisher, Myriad Editions. That was fantastic; it really motivated me to get the novel finished, to find out whether they would want to publish it. In fact when they saw the whole book, they didn’t want it. They hadn’t expected it to go off in the direction of assisted dying. At the same time, two agents had a look at it and said it wasn’t for them, either.
Just at that point, I was given a diagnosis of cancer. That made the decision to self publish a great deal easier. I knew it was important to me to get the book into the world, I didn’t know how long I’d be feeling well, or even how long I’d be here. I didn’t have time to spend sending it out and waiting for responses from agents and publishers. I decided to do it myself.
I’m delighted I did. It’s been a massive learning curve and I still have a great deal to learn about the industry. But I love the fact that my book is available and people are reading it and engaging with it. And I’m completely well again now.
Al Brookes, like S.J. Watson and J.K. Rowling, is potentially a gender-ambiguous author name. Was that a deliberate choice on your part?
I like the fact that Al Brookes is gender ambiguous, but I didn’t choose it for that reason. I’ve been called Al for the past 25 years. It’s just my name!
The switch from the introspective world of the writer to the extrovert world of a book-promoter is not an easy one- perhaps not unlike Claire’s decision to let go of her carefully constructed shell! How is the transformation going for you so far?
It really isn’t easy at all, is it? I find it quite difficult and it makes me quite anxious in some ways – not the process of the book being seen, I love engaging with people to discuss the book, I enjoy doing readings, running writing workshops and generally offering my tuppence worth – I’m not particularly shy! But having to generate sales opportunities, negotiate my way into bookshops, badger folk to post reviews… I find all of that pretty horrible.
However, I have this idea that if the book is good enough, it will eventually find its way to the readers who will appreciate it… That was one of the reasons I entered the Guardian competition.
The Gift of Looking Closely won the Guardian’s Self-Published Book of the Month in July 2014. What role do you think awards like this have on the way self-published books are perceived by readers?
Awards like this don’t change the fact that lots of self-published books are rubbish. But they do highlight the fact that there are some outstanding self-published books to be found. At the moment, readers are discovering the self-published books they want to read via blogs and review sites, Amazon ratings, social media and good old fashioned word of mouth. Mainstream awards provide these readers with another route of discovery – and they offer some of the best of self-published work to a new audience of readers. Hopefully, they will also encourage bookstores and libraries to be more open to the idea of stocking self-published writers.
You’re sitting in your favourite writing space. What can you see?
I can see a lined page, and I have a pencil in my hand… and I’m not alone.
My favourite writing space is not a specific physical place, it’s with a particular group of people. I’ve belonged to the same writing group for the past ten years – we still meet and do writing exercises together. That’s my favourite writing space, with that group of people. It feels safe and brave and positive and accepting.
Do you read other indie (self-published) authors? What’s your top indie recommendation?
I’ve read some self-published authors. But as a reader, I’m not hugely concerned whether a book is self-published or traditionally published – it really is just about the quality of the writing. I read writers like Margaret Atwood, Arundhati Roy, Ali Smith, Martin Amis. I love literary fiction; I love writing that crafts the language and takes risks.
Thank you, Al.
Thank you for asking the questions – I’ve enjoyed exploring the answers.
The Gift of Looking Closely is available through Amazon or from Al Brookes' website www.albrookes.co.uk